Shanghai, the head of the dragon

China’s most cosmopolitan city has been a cultural melting pot for almost two centuries

click to enlarge Pudong and the Oriental Pearl tower.
  • Pudong and the Oriental Pearl tower.

From our perch atop the Oriental Pearl the freighters on the Huangpu River below us look like toy boats in a sparkling fairyland of light. On the opposite shore the floodlit buildings of the Bund cast upside-down reflections on the night water. And beyond the Bund, Nanjing Road cuts a brilliant swath of light through the very centre of Shanghai.

At 461 metres the Oriental Pearl is the highest structure in Asia. We are seated in its revolving restaurant looking down on the skyscrapers of Pudong. Hanson orders a round of Tsingtao beer and we dig in to the gourmet buffet. Rotating slowly above the city we pick out the places we visited during our short visit: the bustling wharves along the river, The Bund, the shops of Nanjing Road, The Old Chinese Quarter, and Yu Gardens. Half way through our meal the view shifts from the Bund, a relic of China’s colonial past, to the Pudong area of East Shanghai where the Jin Mao building, an 88-storey steel and glass pagoda, symbolizes China’s vision of the future. It’s impossible to visit Shanghai without getting caught up in its history. The story of its journey from fishing village to commercial powerhouse is as bizarre as an opium-induced dream.

Only a few years ago the Pudong New Development Zone was still a cluster of farmers’ fields. Today it is the country’s fastest growing financial, economic, and commercial centre. The Jin Mao, which houses the world’s highest hotel, is currently the fourth highest building in the world, but it will soon be dwarfed by the nearby World Financial Centre. When completed this futuristic spire will tower 95 storeys over Shanghai’s bourgeoning East Side. Pudong, which was still on the drawing boards in 1990, is already home to the city’s international airport, the Shanghai Stock Market, and the world’s first commercial magnetic levitation train. The pace of development is staggering, and not just on the East Side. Across the river the face of old Shanghai has also changed and continues to change. In 1987 the city had about 150 high-rise buildings. Today there are more than 3,000. During the late 1990s, at the height of its construction frenzy, an estimated one-fifth of the world’s high-lift cranes were at work in Shanghai. Many are still there.

“If China is a dragon,” said China’s leader Deng Xiaoping in 1990, “Shanghai is its head.” And Shanghai, the head of the dragon, is poised to overtake Hong Kong as the most powerful commercial city in Asia. The Huangpu River, which divides East and West Shanghai, is the shipping artery to the East China Sea and the mouth of the Yangtze River — a vital link between Yangtze ports deep in China’s interior with those of the Pacific margin. The 58 kilometres of wharves that line the Huangpu’s once muddy banks now handle one third of the commercial freight moving in and out of China. But back in the1800s the Chinese dragon was still asleep and Shanghai was little more than a fishing village.


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